Chair Entertainment first arrived on the video game scene in 2007 with the downloadable XBLA shooter Undertow, but it was the studio’s next two games that really exploded. Fan favorite XBLA game Shadow Complex was a fantastic tribute to the Metroid/Castlevania genre, and the drop dead gorgeous swordfighter Infinity Blade, whose latest update just added multiplayer capabilities, finally gave hardcore gamers a reason to care about iPhone and iPad games. We sat down with founder and Creative Director Donald Mustard and studio publicist Laura Mustard in Chair’s cozy studios in quiet Salt Lake City, Utah to talk about Infinity Blade, the past and future, and just what makes the company tick.
Infinity Blade – A gateway game
More than a few people were surprised to hear that Shadow Complex developer Chair was making an Apple iOS game. But after seeing Infinity Blade, most have learned not to question the company’s eclectic platform choices. Donald explains that the speed with which Apple devices; hardware is upgraded created a unique challenge to the team at Chair.
“Honestly the hardware caught up to the capabilities of the engine. The Unreal Engine 3 (which Infinity Blade used) is amazingly powerful. It can make everything from Mass Effect 2 and Arkham Asylum to Shadow Complex and Gears of War and everything in between,” Donald says, “I don’t think anybody at Epic or Chair was prepared for how quickly the devices would become more powerful.” However, Donald made it clear that huge technological leaps only excites him; “I mean we’re going to be able to do stuff on the iPad 2 that’s going to look a lot better than what Infinity Blade looks like and I assume the iPhone 5 will be pretty much the same.”
Does that mean there’s more Infinity Blade on the way? Probably not. “We’re giving you a whole lot of game for your dollar,” Donald rightly points out, “But that will probably be about the extent of what we really do with Infinity Blade and we’ll be moving on to other new awesome stuff.”
Though he stopped short of saying the specific words “Infinity Blade 2”, when pressed to explain if “new awesome stuff” means more iOS content, Donald answers with an enthusiastic “yes.” He states that the amount of iOS devices on the market is a huge draw for him as a game designer because it means a game can reach such a large and varied market. “And the market is only growing,” says Laura. She goes on to clarify what she believes is Infinity Blade‘s lower barrier of entry – the simplicity of its design. “It really is the first gamers’ game for iDevices, but at the same time it considers that there is a user base of gamers out there that have been trained to play games on their phones and are calling themselves gamers. You can turn people off really quickly if they don’t get it.”
We asked whether or not this desire to appeal to a larger audience was a contributor to the toned-down story. “We’re just telling the story in a different way.” Donald says, “In any IP we release, while we love making fun games, we also care a lot about our universes, and we want to tell really cool stories. I actually think Infinity Blade has one of our coolest stories; but you’re just seeing the very, very, very tip of the iceberg and with the new update, and with things we’re starting to reveal, we have a very interesting universe that we want to explore and tell stories in and we have a lot more planned.”
This promise of more story revealing itself in future updates is tempting, but don’t expect a Shadow Complex level of intricacy. Even though it may not all be clear right now, when asked if they know the whole Infinity Blade story Donald insists, “Yeah, we have it all mapped out. It’s awesome. We know how the God King’s castle got built and who built it and the level of technology they had to even build something like that.” He explains that in his opinion, this is necessary. Citing examples of poorly mapped-out sequels like The Matrix trilogy, Donald believes that if you don’t plan to make a sequel, you shouldn’t make one.
Chair plans to unravel the story much in the same way it reveals new gameplay; in “bite-sized chunks.” This is how they planned the game from the beginning, one people could play on the subway or standing in line; not a 40-hour RPG for the average gamer’s couch. But don’t let this fool you; Chair is no better than your average drug-dealer. Donald states that Infinity Blade is a “gateway game” aiming to attract casual gamers into more hardcore games, “then we can bring them in.”
Zelda for Sure
Chair’s Shadow Complex was hugely well received by critics and gamers alike. By taking Metroid’s now-classic formula and superimposing it with a different story and impressive graphics, they created a game to make Metroid fans salivate. “I really think that Super Metroid is the pinnacle of 2d game design,” says Donald, “So that came out in 1994, and other than the two entries on the handhelds, there are no games in that genre. I guess Symphony of the Night was ’97, so like, no entries in the genre in like 15 years. It’s almost like if someone didn’t make a first person shooter for ten years. It makes no sense. This is an awesome genre, a design genre of the nonlinear exploratory game that’s really cool. So we thought that genre needs to be updated and revitalized and put on consoles and it’ll be big and it was.”
Chair’s success with Shadow Complex has gamers wondering what other 16-bit genres the company may want to revisit. “Zelda for sure,” Donald states without hesitation, “I think that there’s some cool stuff that Zelda does that no other games do. It’s not like it would be ‘here’s our version of the game’ but what are some things that we could take from Zelda that would benefit any genre and any category.” Donald goes on to explain that the non-linear gameplay in Metroid was what attracted him to making Shadow Complex, and that the same thing attracts him to Zelda.